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Voices of Water: Osvel Hinojosa and Yamilett Guerrero

Osvel Hinojosa Huerta, Director of the Water and Wetlands Program, and Yamilett Carrillo Guerrero, Coordinator of the Initiative for Sustainable Watersheds, at Pronatura Noroeste

20100802 Mexico 9384 OD© Blue Legacy/Oscar Durand

We asked our beloved hosts and guides in Mexico, Osvel Hinojosa-Huerta, Pronatura Noroeste's Director of the Water and Wetlands Program and his partner Yamilett Carillo Guerrero, the coordinator of Pronatura’s Sustainable Watershed’s initiative in Northwestern Mexico to write us a blog post about our exploits south of the border. Enjoy! And thanks Osvel and Yami for such an insightful and enriching visit throughout the Colorado River delta!!

This was certainly a life changing experience for us, and we hope it is for the Colorado River too. From July 29th to August 2nd we were part of Expedition Blue Planet 2010 with Alexandra Cousteau and some of her amazing crew (Jonathan, Ben, Sean, Oscar, Anne and Ian) in the Colorado River delta and Upper Gulf of California, Mexico.

The story of the Colorado River delta is one of death and re-birth, despair and hope. Once considered one of the world's great desert estuaries, the delta of this fully diverted, over-allocated, drought-prone Colorado River has no water rights of its own. As a result, the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea. Its terminus in the Sea of Cortez is now a vast hypersaline mudflat, which thirst for freshwater and extends as far as the eye can see.

Our five days on expedition were long and the weather was blazing hot (117 degrees Fahrenheit) but the team’s enthusiasm and commitment infected us. By the end we had explored the most degraded landscapes and the most beautiful wetlands in the delta - a stark contrast of what the absence or presence of freshwater does to ecosystems.

For this endeavor, we counted on the help of our friends: river advocates, water managers, farmers, fishermen, Cucapá elders and delta residents. Their voices told the story of how dams and diversions in the basin have impacted nature and livelihoods in this region. But they also spoke of the restoration miracles caused by inadvertent flows and the hope that river water will flow in the delta again.

Before the development of the hydraulic infrastructure in the basin, the Colorado River delta supported over 500,000 hectares of riparian and wetland areas, forming an extensive estuary as the river reached the Upper Gulf of California. After the completion of the larger dams in the basin in the 1960s, no water reached the area for nearly 20 years, causing the disappearance of riparian forests, marshes, and the degradation of the estuary. The lack of river flows also caused a decline on the marine life in the Upper Gulf.

However, a modest but significant portion of wetlands have been regenerated in response to inadvertent water releases from U.S. dams, seepage from unlined canals and agricultural return flows. This way, the delta remains one of the most important sites for migratory waterbirds in the continent, as well as a wetland of international importance.

In arid land rivers like the Colorado, allocating instream flows to maintain viable ecosystems requires a basin-wide commitment to reduce water diversions and aquifer extractions. Though difficult as it is to change the way we use and value water, the question is not whether environmental flows can be afforded, but whether can we afford not to provide flows for nature.

The interest in restoring the Colorado River delta has been increasing on both sides of the border. Opportunities for restoration have been identified and these ideas have been discussed in binational forums incorporating environmental considerations into the political, social, and economic frameworks. This process has resulted in a consensus on the importance of implementing a restoration program, which would consider water requirements for the conservation of nature.

As a first step, now we have a Water Trust for the Restoration of the Colorado River Delta, dedicated to the purchase of water rights to restore flows in the river. In the long-term, we hope to see again a Colorado River running from the headwaters all the way down into the Gulf of California.

The visit from Blue Legacy could not have been timed better, as this is a crucial moment in the life and future of the Colorado River delta; allocation of water for nature is finally within reach. The awareness being created by this expedition will certainly help us move forward towards restoring flows in the river....and as TR Ritchie sings: Let it flow!